Wise speech is a prayer

My parents, now retired pastors, have been ordained many years in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada and the Polish Lutheran Church. My mother told me that not once in her long years of work did she choose to preach on the second lesson for this Sunday in Ordinary Time — the 18th Sunday after Pentecost — James 5:13-20. 

So, curious, I went back in my online archive of sermons to see if had. And to my surprise, I discovered that I now have preached two sermons in a row based on this text. The last time in the lectionary these texts appeared was three years ago in September 2012; and here we are three years later focusing on it again!

Why so? I asked myself. Many possible reasons likely. Not to mention the lectionary group here at Faith chose to reflect on James — yet again! Could it be, underlying this desire to look at James is the church’s need today for some practical advice about how to live the Christian life? Could it be, that the church today needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world?

When we think of all that we say, all the airtime we populate with our words, how much of it would we consider ‘wise’? It is important to ask this, since one of the major concerns in the Book of James is our speech (Mark Douglas, Feasting on the Word Year B Vol 4, eds. Barbara Brown Taylor & David L Bartlett, WJK Press, 2009, p.112). And, it’s not so much what we say but how we say it — in the context of the relationships involved. This, indeed, requires great wisdom. So, I ask again, how much of what we say would we consider wise?

My guess is, not much. When we think of all that we say that is hypocrisy — that doesn’t really coincide with the choices we make, the lifestyles we lead. When we think of all that we say that only ends up hurting others …

When wise speech happens, it is truly a holy event. This is speech that communicates truth and honesty. This is speech that reveals vulnerability, expresses compassion, tenderness and authenticity. This is speech that is wise. And wise speech is then a prayer in God, with God, to God.

And, it is not only spoken to the ceiling. Because prayer is fundamentally a public act, not a private affair. One of the unfortunate victims of the Reformation period  — which launched the Enlightenment and Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the modern era — was that Confession was relegated to a lower place in the value systems of religion. As a result of these modernizing developments which heightened the importance of the individual in religion, prayer was reduced and confined to words spoken to the air in our private lives.

In contrast, Confession is about speaking honestly the truth of our lives to another and with another. Confession is wise speech which brings healing and wholeness, when another ‘in the flesh’ can hear the truth and respond with guidance and in love, mercy and forgiveness.

And what we do every time we gather to worship, is pray. We pray in all the parts of the liturgy. Whether we are celebrating the sacrament of the table, whether we are listening to the sermon, whether we are singing a hymn or ‘saying’ a prayer — we are praying! Including the Confession of sins, and the pronouncement of forgiveness.

It is true — the church needs basic guidance about how to live as a Christian would in today’s world. I emphasize in today’s world because sometimes I don’t think we realize how decidedly unChristian this culture of ours is. And I don’t just mean the fact that we live in a multicultural, ethnically and religiously diverse society. But also, even in the institutional church, in our own lives, our lifestyles, our common sense assumptions about how to live our lives and the values we espouse: our attitudes towards competition, financial security, self-defence, self-righteousness, financial-material selfish gain, etc.

Perhaps it is time for the Reformation church (including Lutherans) to let go of the split we have created between grace and ‘works righteousness’. It is not all ‘cheap’ grace on the one hand; nor is it all work, on the other. In truth, it is a lot of work and practice to remain fully open to underserved and unmerited grace (Philippians 2:12-13). Because we will rush, if unawares, to make it all about our hard work. Just work harder!

At the same time, as Cynthia Bourgeault writes (in The Wisdom Way of Knowing: Reclaiming an Ancient Tradition to Awaken the Heart, Jossey Bass Publishing, 2003, p.10), “those willing to bear the wounds of intimacy, the knowledge of that underlying coherence – in which all things hold together – is possible.” To let go of the compulsions that keep us captive and stuck in patterns of life that are ungracious, untrue, unhealthy. To commit to the work and sacrifice of being true to self, true to neighbour and true to God. To practice confession and honesty with another. To accept the forgiveness, mercy and love of God and to receive it fully and know peace.

Could it be deep down we know it but are afraid to address and embrace it: the values of God in Christ Jesus are meaningful — they make for great, wordy and pious statements in church groups — yet clash with what we do and what we actually say to one another?

The Furious 7 movie which was Paul Walker’s last before he died shortly after filming the movie, ironically, in a car crash, highlighted for me this hypocrisy. In the extended version which I assume was edited after his death, there is a beautiful scene on the beach where Paul Walker’s character and family are gathered. His friends watch on as he plays with his young child and pregnant wife at the water’s edge. One of them remarks how what is truly important in life is not the thrill-seeking, high-octane, ego-satisfying selfish pursuits, but his relational world of love and family which endures forever. In contrast to the explosive, sensational content of the film up to that point, this affirmation of family living in love is rich in meaning and truth.

I commented in my slightly cynical mood after the movie that I didn’t think the Fast & the Furious franchise would have grossed the hundreds of millions it did if it made movies solely about family and love. It seems we want to acknowledge what is true and right, but only after we first can serve our own fixations and compulsions ‘for the thrill’.

Another TV example: Did you notice how the Amazing Race Canada presented the final words of the father and daughter from Africa — newly arrived immigrants, when they were eliminated before the final round? They were the victims of unfair play in that second-to-last leg of the race; other teams cheated on them by stealing their taxi not once but twice, if I remember correctly. 

And then, as the host John invited them for some closing remarks on the elimination mat, all of them spoke beautiful tear-wrenching words about the fair, generous nature of Canadians. It seems only the losers have something meaningful to say. Only when we suffer loss do we discover the truth of our lives. Now, we are getting uncomfortably closer to the whole point of our Christian faith and what it means to follow Jesus.

As I wrote three years ago, in James’ concluding chapter we encounter vivid images of prayer involving the laying on of hands and the anointing with oil. Prayer is a public act that invades the space of individuals and pulls us to be in the space of one another. Prayer is inherently relational. It gets down and dirty in the bodily reality of our lives, one with another. It is about touch and sensation as much as about the mere words we speak. Prayer is not my time, it is our time for the sake of the other.

Maybe I chose to preach on James 5 two times in a row because the Gospel associated with this text is about Jesus instructing us to cut out our eyes or chop off our hands if they caused us to sin (Mark 9:38-50). And I just didn’t want to go there! These are difficult words to ponder. Jesus concludes by using the image of salt to define the Christian life: something with an edge, that adds flavour. God forbid you lose your edge, your flavour! Jesus counsels us to have saltiness in our lives as a way to “be at peace with one another” (v.50).

Perhaps the way of Jesus will be tough and difficult building bridges of reconciliation. And yet, his last word to us today is a blessing of peace. The Book of James began with an address to those who are “dispersed” (1:1). James continues his letter to address the divisive consequences of an “unbridled tongue” (3:6ff) and considers the reasons for the “conflicts and disputes” among the people of God (3:4). James’ letter acknowledges the inherent splintering of our lives.

His letter in chapter 5, however, ends rather abruptly. Perhaps to indicate that there is no easy answer to the disconnections of our lives. Perhaps also to remind us that though wise speech is indeed a gift from God in the world so full of sin and death, we will still pray. And through prayer that is public, we will continue to engage the world in hope for a time when what has splintered can be reunited.

The roominess of God

Perhaps even more so that the images of the gate, sheep pens and pastures green, the metaphor of a room speaks more relevantly to us, today. Jesus says that he goes ahead to his “Father’s house” to prepare a room for each one of us (John 14:1-3).

Given the average rental costs of a one-bedroom apartment in Ottawa today is close to $1000/month; given that real estate values in Canada today are scrutinized by some economists as being over-priced, where the average single-dwelling house is almost $400,000 — the physical space we call home and the rooms we inhabit are, to say the least, costly.

We place a high value on our housing. And therefore our ears are piqued to hear a comforting word of promise from the lips of Jesus: at the end of the journey, each of us has a place in God’s house.

I remember my first trans-Atlantic plane-ride as a 10-year old when my family travelled to visit family in Germany. It was a long day and short night complete with sounds and sights and senses I had never yet experienced. Sensory overload!

When we arrived at my aunt’s house in Germany, exhausted yet exhilarated, she immediately showed us to our rooms. And even though it was the start of a new day, I appreciated the chance to be all by myself, in my own room prepared just for me, on the ground, still and silent. The peace and comfort of my room was a welcomed contrast to the hyper-stimulation of the long journey there.

One of the things I learned from the experience of long-distance travelling is that time gets all mixed up. My sense of the passage of time gets either accelerated or elongated when crossing multiple time zones in a day. And that can be disconcerting to the body. We call it jet lag. And there’s nothing like a place we can put down our suitcase and put up our feet to cope with the dis-orienting trouble of travel.

Jesus promises his disciples who face the trouble of loss — the loss of his physical, bodily presence with them — he promises them that God the Father has room for them. Indeed, God is ‘roomy’.

But, as some thinkers emphasize, God’s roominess has more to do with the time God has for us (Robert Jensen in Colin Gunton, “The Doctrine of Creation”, 1997, p.24). Time can be defined as: room in God’s own life. God is roomy, in that God’s eternity is not separated from our time on earth and its boundary of death; rather, God’s roominess is God having all the time he needs. The Psalmist expressed this concept of time, poetically: “For a thousand years in your sight, O God, are like yesterday when it is past” (90:4).

What troubles Jesus’ disciples is the very real sense that their time with Jesus has come to an end. Indeed we have the same trouble vis-a-vis our loved ones. Time, we perceive, is brief. Its brevity robs us of those we love.

The plots of most of the stories we enjoy reading and watching on the big screen today excite us because they are charged with the scarcity of time. The main characters are up against a deadline. If time runs out before they complete their quest, then all is lost forever. The dramatic thriller normally has a climax where the proverbial ticking time-bomb must be deactivated before total devastation.

The scarcity of time stokes our fear, and guides our decisions. We hear this a lot in our daily conversations. Marketing gurus capitalize on our fear of running out of time: “This special offer ends today!” “Get yours before time runs out!” We also hear this line of argument expressed in popular religion — “Before time runs out on your life, accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour — or else!” The result of living this kind of approach is fear-based.

It also assumes, in the end, when time runs out, it’s all up to us. We forget in all the fear and anxiety, that Jesus had all the time in the world for his disciples. Remember, Philip was one of the first of all of his disciples to follow Jesus (John 1:43). And yet here we see Philip, who had spent three years with Jesus, not getting it. Philip still does not really know Jesus, who tells him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” (John 14:9)

And it’s to those very disciples, like Philip, Thomas and Peter who doubt, who deny, who sometimes express their belief boldly, and sometimes don’t — it’s to those very disciples Jesus promises nonetheless: God has a room for you in his house. Jesus, despite their unbelief, comforts them in their grief at his leaving them, and promises them God’s eternal presence.

Who among us knows Jesus? Does knowing Jesus coincide with an inward assent to church doctrine or written creed? Or, is it more than that? Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him.” What John is getting at in his Gospel is that believing is expressed more as an outward and active commitment to a person, the person being Jesus (Cynthia Jarvis in Feasting on the Word Year A Vol 2, p.467).

We know God by God’s initiative in Jesus Christ. We are not the actors; God is not known to us because Jesus is dependent on the exercise of our cognitive abilities. No one has ever seen God; we know God only by Jesus’ self-revelation to us in love and grace.

In the Large Catechism, Martin Luther, in response to the First Commandment — “I am The Lord your God, you shall have no other God’s before me” — Luther poses the question: What does it mean to have a God? He answers that God is what you hang your heart upon.

Hang your heart upon Jesus. When the journey of life goes haywire and you are disoriented by grief, loss or great personal challenge.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, when time appears to be running out.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, trusting that his presence is in you when you reach out into the homeless world to house those who do not have a room.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, being the hands and feet of Christ, sharing his love for those in want.

Hang your heart upon Jesus, who leads the way, and is in us through life and death.

Because God has a room for you. And God has all the time in the world, for you.

Created and Chosen – youth sermon

In “Captain America” – the movie – the main character played by actor Chris Evans is deemed unfit to serve in the military during the 2nd Word War. Steve Rogers is too short, to light, and sickly; his medical record shows he got the brunt of all the bad genes from his ailing parents.

Steve Rogers’ outward, physical appearance doesn’t measure up. He is judged basically by what people can see on the surface of who he is.

Eventually, he does get chosen after five failed attempts. How?

What the doctor who approves him for service sees in him is something special. Not based on outward appearance, but on his attitude, his beliefs, what he holds true within, interiorly.

How is his attitude made manifest? Through a couple of tests. First, a fake grenade is thrown amidst the group of prospective soldiers. And all of them, even the most physically strong and capable soldier, dive for safety behind walls, tires and underneath trucks. All of them have self-preservation as their primary instinct.

Except Steve Rogers. Instinctively when the grenade is thrown he throws himself upon it, literally, so that the blast would not hurt anyone else. Selfless. Other-centred.

The second test is an answer to a question posed by the doctor who approved his application: “Do you want to kill Nazis?” While most of Steve Rogers’ peers expressed the killing instinct in war, he says, “No, I do not want to kill anyone.” His desire to join is based on a much deeper and higher sense of service and mission.

In the Bible we read that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14); whether we realize it or not, God creating each of us makes each of us very special. And it’s not about how big or strong or handsome or pretty or beautiful we are or look on the outside. It’s all about what Jesus sees on the inside of us that counts.

We are special, even when you think about how each of our bodies work. Here are some facts I looked up about our bodies, facts you may not have known, and which prove how incredible we are merely on a cellular level:

  • Our lungs contain over 300 million tiny blood vessels; if they were laid out end to end, they would stretch from here to Florida!
  • The nerve impulses to and from our brains travel as fast as 275 kms/h – almost as fast as a NASCAR race car!
  • The brain is more active at night than during the day
  • Sneezes exceed 160 kms/h – way faster than driving on the 417 or 401!
  • Babies are, kilogram for kilogram, stronger than an ox!
  • Your nose can remember 50,000 different scents
  • The tooth is the only – and I repeat only – part of the body that can’t repair itself
  • Every day our bodies produce 300 billion NEW cells
  • Your body has enough iron in it to make a nail 10 cms long
  • A single human blood cell takes only 60 seconds to make a complete circuit of the body
  • In 30 minutes, the average body gives off enough combined heat to bring almost 2 litres of water to boil

We are special – each and every one of us! And God has chosen us, not on account of our appearance or physical attributes. But for a special mission to share God’s love with others in the different ways God made us to do this. God chooses you to belong in God’s family because God made you, and God loves you!